Well, I’ve done it again – sneaked out of the Plant Kingdom and into the Kingdom of the Fungi!
And for a very good reason, too, just look at this fantastic group of Laetiporus sulphureus. Just call it Chicken of the Woods, Sulphur Shelf or Sulphur Polypore. It was a very colorful find on an extremely brownish and crunchy- dry hike to the top of Skyline Drive. And who wouldn’t want to hang out on the side of a dead tree overlooking this view, hmm? All of those overlapping, bright orange, fan-shaped caps range from smooth and suede-like to finely wrinkled with sulphur yellow margins and pores, not gills, underneath. Those pores, tiny little holes, dispense white spores, creating another generation of wood recyclers. The living, dead or decaying wood they grow on provides them with the nutrients to live and reproduce. The bright coloration will fade as these organisms age. The fresh flesh, thick and soft, will become tougher, not decaying like the mushrooms in your yard would.
Sulphur Polypores grow fruit bodies from spring to autumn. They range across the North American continent, east of the Rockies , providing good eats for beetles and deer.
A volunteer plant grew near my woodshed – unexpected, but not unappreciated! It appeared over a month ago. I had to wait for it to grow bigger before introducing it to you and getting the photos that would capture its unique physique! Our native White Vervain (Verbena urticifolia) is a member of the Verbena Family, along with about 3,000 other species, mostly from warmer climates. Teak is one of them, prized for its beautiful and durable wood. I have always admired White Vervain and was happy to find it growing nearby. These annual or perennial plants usually choose moist fields, meadows, thickets or waste ground. Well, nothing much grows there except pennyroyal, and there is a downspout nearby. I guess that works in its favor.
White Vervain plants are compact at their start. When their small, tight, flower spikes appear, the magic begins! Their very slender flower stems begin to stretch out in all directions. The buds on them move further and further apart from each other until they look like little bugs sitting on thin branches. The really tiny white flowers open willy-nilly, here and there, as they mature. I pulled off one of the pollinated flowers and rubbed it gently between my fingers to tease out the four nutlets inside that will create the next generation of plants there. The flower stalks definitely stand out as an identifying characteristic of White Vervain. But, the rest of the plant needs to be checked out, too. It can grow from two to five feet tall, has a hairy, square stem, and stiff, opposite leaves that are doubly-serrated and look like the blades on a steak knife. If you want to look for this plant, it should be flowering from July to September in Pennsylvania. Its close relative, Blue Vervain, can be found inhabiting similar habitats, but has stiff pencil-like spikes of small, blue flowers that appear in a “more organized” fashion resembling a candelabra!
Medicinally, Vervains are astringent, or drying, and have been used for millennia crushed up and applied externally to wounds, poison ivy sores and other skin complaints.
Purple-flowering Raspberry’s scientific name is Rubus odoratus. Its genus name is from Latin for “bramble”, defined as a prickly, scrambling shrub or vine of the Rose Family. But, its arching and sprawling branches have reddish-brown hairs that are sticky to touch instead of prickly to touch! This perennial plant is native to eastern North America. Its gorgeous rose-purple flowers that are about two inches wide made it a desired target of plant gathers from England in the 1770’s. It was taken there as an ornamental and has since naturalized as many plants from there have done here!
The leaves of this shrub resemble maple leaves with a heart-shaped base and three or five triangle lobes. The whole plant can reach to six feet tall. On a ledge or a shaded cliff where they seem to prefer growing, it is hard to get a true measure of their height. Their five-petaled flowers, pollinated by bees and insects, then create a large, flat berry made up of many little druplets. They bloom from May to August and set fruit from July to September depending on local conditions. I have found many adjectives describing the characteristics of these red berries: dry, tart, acid, bland, seedy, fuzzy to touch and on the tongue! Well, songbirds and game birds will eat them. Small mammals, too. The seeds are great for sowing in order to return native plants to an area and the roots work well at stabilizing banks. Many members of the Rubus genus, eighteen grow PA, have been used medicinally because their leaves are highly astringent and helped treat dysentery and diarrhea as well as skin ailments like sores and boils.
On spring hikes near shaded banks of shale rocks, I like to look for Early Saxifrage, a member of the Saxifrage family. Its appearance in the crevices of rocks helps me remember the unusual name of Saxifrage. It comes from Latin saxum (rock) and frangere (to break) – ” rock breaker”. Because of this, early herbalists used it for treating kidney stones and bladder gravel. I suspect nature’s freeze/thaw cycle should get most of the credit for breaking up most of the cliff rocks around here!
This interesting plant starts blooming when only three inches tall and continues an upward surge until it’s a foot high. Sometimes growing in patches, they wave back and forth in the breeze, especially after their tight flower clusters begin to loosen up and push apart. They appear rather top heavy. I had difficulty getting them to stand still for a group picture. Their stems are straight…and hairy! That’s actually a useful identification point. You don’t even need a magnifier. Some say it is to hinder ground insects from crawling up get nectar. Bees and other flying insects may offer better prospects for cross-pollination.
Saxifrage leaves are oval-shaped with scalloped edges that form a basal rosette. They don’t grow up the flower stem. The white flowers are about one-quarter inch wide. The plant has deeply penetrating taproots with wiry root systems. After fertilization, a one-inch fruit capsule forms and turns from green to lavender or purple, and then splits to release the tiny black seeds. Early Saxifrage is native to eastern and central North America and grows from Ontario to Georgia as a perennial. There are more than 580 species in the Saxifrage Family worldwide which occur mainly in cooler regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
To all warm-blooded mammals reading this article – You undergo a process called “thermogenesis” to create your own body heat. Did you know that Skunk Cabbage is one of the few plant species that does this as well? Tramping along streams in very early spring, especially while snow and frost are still noticeable, you can see the purple and green mottled blossoms of Skunk Cabbage emerging from the cold, hard ground. They are able to because they use some of the carbohydrates they made last year, and stored in their foot-long, six-inch wide central root, to produce the heat energy they use to melt their way upward through the snow and out into the cold air. Their internal furnace can reach up to 60 degrees inside their four to six inch spathe or hooded cover that surrounds the club-shaped flower cluster or spadix. You may remember seeing the word “spathe” in an earlier article describing Green Dragon which is, along with Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Skunk Cabbage, a member of the Arum Family.
Skunk Cabbage is a wetland plant that grows near swamps, marshes, and in wet woodlands. It takes five to seven years before a young plant can blossom. In spring, it flowers before its bright green leaves come up and unfurl. Then these plants really become obvious because their big leaves can grow from fifteen to twenty-one inches long and twelve to fifteen inches wide! While walking along Big Run, I found about fifty blossoms starting to emerge. They were in all stages of growth, and some were beginning to leaf out.
When I pulled the edges of the spathe apart to look inside at the flowers, bunches of gnats and flies came zooming out. They were pollinators attracted by the warm air and stinky, putrescent odor. The name “skunk” is well-deserved in a plant with chemicals like skatole and cadaverine in its tissues to attract pollinators. Not many animals eat the roots, leaves or flowers either except bears in spring (They’ll eat anything.) and snapping turtles – because of the intense burning caused by calcium oxylate crystals found in their tissues. Slugs and snails help break down the dead plant when it dies back and goes dormant in the late summer.
This is not a “cabbage” you should eat, although people have eaten it in the past after boiling three times and drying. Its leaves have been used medicinally for skin problems – ulcers, wounds, blisters. Fresh leaves can also cause blisters, too. I found one reference of root usage in 1708 for treating “suppurating tumors”.
This is a pretty hardy plant. but it does not bounce back well from the deforestation and water level changes that accompany clear cutting, agriculture, and development.
I love trees, especially this time of year, when
leafless. They stand out so stark and sturdy against the sky. Sometimes, as a game,
I try to identify trees by their silhouettes as we pass them by in the car. I
look for hints of seeds, cones, leftover flower spikes, branch configuration.
There was no drive-by the day my cousin and I found this
lovely mystery tree as we hiked Chad’s Trail at Glacial Pools. The sky was just
perfect, a blue backdrop interrupted by wisps of cirrus clouds. We had to check
Clue #1 Little cone-like strobiles that hold samaras or
double-winged seeds, oblong, 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches long, brownish, disintegrating.
Clue #2 The bark – shiny, dark and smooth, not papery and
peeling. Many horizontal lines crossing the trunk – lenticels – corky pores
through the bark that provide direct air exchange with the tree’s internal
Clue #3 The twigs – dark brown, slender, hairless. Snap a
twig and sniff the broken end. Ah, the odor of wintergreen!
Perfect! Sweet Birch, Black Birch, Cherry Birch, Betula
Sweet Birch, a native to Eastern North America, ranges
from Canada to the mountains of Georgia and Alabama. A USDA Forest Survey
indicates that it is most abundant in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and
Pennsylvania. It is one of the species that has replaced American Chestnut
where it used to grow. Considered a pioneer species, it tends to grow quickly
when young and can grow from stump sprouts if the main trunk is cut or dies.
The shiny, smooth bark will become rough and in vertical flat plates as it ages
and will continue a pattern of split, peel, and replace throughout the rest of
its life which could be up to two hundred years! You can find them growing in
cool, moist uplands with hardwoods and conifers. They like the moist ,
well-drained soil of stream banks as well as dry, rocky soil of ledges.
It used to take one hundred saplings and trees to
manufacture just one quart of Birch oil, also called oil of wintergreen. Now
chemically produced methyl salicylate is used to flavor things like medicines,
candy and ice cream. Plus, you don’t have to tap the trees anymore to make
Birch Beer. I like chewing on a twig as I hike along to allay my thirst. Ha. I
just like the flavor!
The four-petaled, pure white flowers on this perennial vine may have been responsible for the common name of this plant, along with the fact that it grows upward, winding itself over bushes and trees to form a shaded shelter or bower. Virgin’s Bower, Clematis virginiana, is a member of the Buttercup Family. There are over 250 different species of Clematis in the world; this one is a native of North America. It ranges from Manitoba to Nova Scotia southward and from New England to Georgia. There are two other native Clematis in PA. Both have purple blooms rather than white.
This time of the year, you won’t find any pretty white blossoms or three-part leaves. What remains is very recognizable, however, along roads or low areas near streams where it likes to grow. It will be sprawled over the tops of small trees and thickets that have lost most of their leaves. The female flowers have morphed by now into cascading, snowball-like clusters of silvery-gray, feathery hairs, each holding a dry, one-seeded fruit that doesn’t split open at maturity – it just hangs on and floats away in the winter wind. Of course, Virgin’s Bower has received another common name from this characteristic, Old Man’s Beard! Itchy! Scratchy! Not the beard part of the plant, but rather, the fresh green foliage, which can cause dermatitis and blistering of the skin! And that, in turn, is very strange because the early settlers used the plant to treat itch and skin diseases!
What an enjoyable afternoon we had at the top of Highland
Mountain, gazing toward the horizon across Sullivan County and being serenaded
by American Towhees with their “Drink your tea” songs! If that wasn’t
great enough, looking across the clearing, I spied lots of small yellow flowers
on squat shrubby-looking bushes. A new plant to explore…one whose name I did
not know. It is Yellow Wild Indigo, with the scientific name of Baptisia
tinctoria, from Latin verbs baptiso
(to dip or dye) and tingo (to soak in dye).
I had met its cousin before, the true “of
India” Indigo, the well-known dye plant in the same Pea Family, FABACEAE.
Here was a plant, native to Pennsylvania, used by Native Americans and
colonists as a blue dye plant, as well as for medicine. The inch and a half
long pea-like flowers were being pollinated by bees. Pods created by that
interaction will look like short, fat peapods that turn brown as they mature.
The leaves attached to the stem are in groups of three like clover, another
relative. The bluish-green color of the young bushes sets them apart visually
from the other greens of the field. The whole plant will turn black rapidly as
it dries out, making it a stand-out among the fall colors, too.
I was happy to discover Yellow Wild Indigo is a host
plant to some of our native butterflies…they evolved together! Check out
Clouded and Orange Sulphurs, the Eastern Tailed-Blue, and, most especially, the
Wild Indigo Dusky Wing – its own very special butterfly!